The Great Scottish Castle Trail – Part One
–A Battlemaster’s Guide to Doing Scotland Right–
Scotland is the land of castles. With arguably the greatest concentration of them in Europe there is something to appeal to everyone – windswept and desolate Highland strongholds, magnificent royal fortresses on city-topping rocky crags, fancy baronial tower houses, and everything in between. 2013 saw a record number of visitors flock to these living pieces of history; with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn and the Scottish independence referendum both coming our way this summer that trend is set to flourish even further. Best of all, Scotland’s castles are accessible. For anyone accustomed to driving for half a day through countries such as France, Germany, Canada or the United States to see a single sight, the intimate smallness of Scotland is completely refreshing. Many castles are within a short strike of major cities and towns, and those that aren’t are a very reasonable car, bus or cycle journey away through unforgettable scenery. Having been to over 60 of these gems myself, I’ve assembled my very own ‘Castle Trail’ for you to follow, taking in the most awe inspiring, historically rich and downright exciting locations that Scotland has to offer.
As a ‘Battle Master’ (yes, that’s the actual job title) at the new Bannockburn Heritage Centre in Stirling, I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in Scottish history, the facts of which consistently prove stranger and more thrilling than fiction. The whole circuit could be completed by a dedicated and nimble traveler within a week, but many are only an afternoon or day trip away from tourist centres such as Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Stirling. All offer a great way for individuals, couples or families to get a little medieval and experience Scotland’s world famous heritage hands-on.
If you plan on visiting more than three or four of these castles, particularly the larger and more expensive ones such as Edinburgh and Urquhart, it is worthwhile to pick up an Explorer Pass from Historic Scotland (HS). This allows you instant access to unlimited HS properties over three or seven days. National Trust for Scotland (NTS) have a similar offer with their Discover Pass at three, seven and fourteen day intervals, giving you access to a great many castles, gardens and estates as well as famous battlefields such as Culloden and Bannockburn. Membership to either organization gives free access to all of their properties, and is excellent value for anyone with a consistent interest in Scottish history and heritage.
Many flights to Scotland arrive in the capital of Edinburgh, putting Edinburgh Castle, voted the UK’s best tourist attraction in 2013, on your immediate doorstep (HS, All Year). The ceremonial firing of the 1 o’clock gun is a visitor favourite, but for the best experience you should show up first thing in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the teeming crowds. The castle offers unparalleled views over the city, and is a boon for military buffs with its selection of regimental museums. If you’re after a more intimate castle experience in the Edinburgh area, Craigmillar Castle sits in undeserved obscurity only one and a half miles south of the city centre (HS, All Year). Its curtain wall is among the finest in Scotland, and with endless nooks and crannies that twice played host to Mary, Queen of Scots it is one of the most enjoyable castles to explore south of the Highland line. Delightfully you often have it to yourself, so feel free to play king of the castle out loud.
Continued in Part Two
Article contributed by: David Weinczok
Picture of Craigmiller Castle supplied by David Weinczok